My friend’s grandfather is a bad-tempered old man, suspicious of foreigners, not averse to beating up the neighbours, and mean-spirited when it comes to charitable giving (though he has a fortune stashed away in his bank account). He spends more time with his electronic gadgets and calculating the interest on his investments than he does with his family. He’s a typical grandfather, and he reminds me of Europe.
Sexist, ageist nonsense? Of course. But what about Pope Francis’s suggestion in his speech to the European Parliament that Europe is “elderly and haggard”, so that “we encounter a general impression of weariness and aging, of a Europe which is now a ‘grandmother’, no longer fertile and vibrant”. Sexist, ageist nonsense, or am I just a haggard old woman who has lost her sense of humour?
Let’s go back to the second century, when the author of The Shepherd of Hermas had a vision of the Church as an old woman with a book, representing the wisdom that many cultures associate with grandmothers. Or consider Christ’s grandmother, Saint Anne, who was a powerful matriarchal presence in late medieval devotion. What about the grandmothers of Africa, who provide loving homes to AIDS orphans? In the western democracies, it is often grandmothers who care for children who are abandoned or neglected by those unable to cope with parenthood.
If Europe really were a grandmother, it would reflect many of the fertile qualities of love, relationality and compassion that Pope Francis says are the hallmarks of respect for “transcendent human dignity”. Women’s human dignity has nothing to do with that vacuous idea of “feminine genius” which Francis borrows from Pope John Paul II. It has everything to do with the mutual respect and attentiveness that we owe to one another as adults in equal and reciprocal relationships. Francis has a long way to go before he persuades me that he has a fundamental respect for the human dignity of women.
In his first interview with a woman since becoming Pope, he was adept at dodging questions to do with misogyny and raising the status of women in the Church. When asked by Franca Giansoldati, a journalist with the Rome daily Il Messaggero, if he thought there was an underlying misogyny in the Church, he replied: “The fact is that woman was taken from a rib”. Ms Giansoldati reports that he laughed ‘heartily’ before saying, “I’m joking. That was a joke.” People who are the butt of racist and sexist jokes are often criticised for not having a sense of humour, but these casual and careless “jokes” corrode human dignity. Asked if he thought a woman might head a Vatican department, he went on to say “Priests often end up under the sway of their housekeepers.” That’s another tedious tactic. Implying that women exercise subtle, subversive control over men is a way of deflecting questions about equality and power.
However, Francis’ greatest failure to date as far as women are concerned is the Synod on the Family. This was his golden opportunity to bring about a more inclusive and representative ethos in the Church, yet apart from one religious sister, the only women present were wives and mothers, in the context of married couples who had been carefully selected because they represented a narrow stereotype of the Catholic family. While Pope Francis encouraged the bishops to speak freely and openly, women are still only permitted to speak according to the most rigidly controlled agenda, with no decision-making power or institutional authority.
So what about the next Synod? It is not too late. Why not invite a woman to accompany every bishop, encourage those women to speak with parrhesia – with courage and confidence – about many different struggles and insights, and allow those women full voting rights along with the prelates?
In the meantime, dear Pope Francis, please cut the jokes. They are not funny.
Tina Beattie is Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton